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Roger Goodell Has The Right Focus, But the Wrong Ideas

Roger Goodell has a tough balancing act as the NFL commissioner, between player safety and the sport we love. But supporting Greg Schiano's proposal to eliminate kickoffs isn't the way to take care of it.

David Banks

Roger Goodell's been the target of much criticism since he took over the job of NFL Commissioner from Paul Tagliabue, whether it be for his sweeping Fines for Everyone epidemic starting no sooner than mere weeks after he took over (a $25,000 fine to Dan Rooney for criticizing the referees) to the unveiling of a new, suspension-heavy player conduct code in 2007 to his handling of the Saints' bounty/pay-for-intent-to-injure scandal and, all throughout, battling the growing concussion war.

Now, some of his punishments may be because he just doesn't like the Steelers, if you take into account suspending Ben Roethlisberger despite a lack of filed charges and his propensity for fining James Harrison for breathing. But largely, Goodell's methodology has been for what he considers the betterment of the league - including standing up for the referees, who can get booed for simply calling a penalty on the away team.

But with the ever-growing focus on brain injuries, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and football players having a lowered quality of post-football life to the point where their lifespans are either naturally shortened or self-shortened, Goodell's job is a truly unenviable one - balance the ferocity and violence inherent in the nation's most popular game with the safety of its players. Honestly, it's a job I'm thankful that I'll never be in the running for.

It's with that balancing act in mind that Time Magazine's Sean Gregory wrote an article entitled "Can Roger Goodell Save Football," and within that article, cited Goodell's youth in the game as well as his career rising through the ranks from intern to driver for Pete Rozelle to the top of the NFL's food chain. And it also cites his consideration of a plan proposed by Greg Schiano which would be a variation on pick-up basketball's "Make It Take It" rule - the team that just scored would get the ball at their own 35 with 4th and 15 - either go for it or punt it away.

If you think the league is focusing too much on kickoffs, I'll just say that you and I are in agreement. This rule variation doesn't sound like it's a bad idea - a punt doesn't have the same "charging" that a kickoff does, but with an obvious difference in yardage. And another idea floated is mandatory thigh and knee pads, which would protect the head in the instances of tackles made "inadvertently" with the head. (James Harrison completely misses the point by saying "I don’t know how many people’s career has been ended on a thigh or knee bruise," when this was floating back in October.)

It's still a football play, however, and football plays can still lead to injuries. To play the game is to incur this risk.

But just for the record, these are some of the things the league still allows while trying to promote player safety:

  • A four-day turnaround for teams leading to what inevitably becomes a horribly out-of-sync and garbage-output Thursday Night Football game on the league's "flagship" network.
  • Hard head-tackles and shoulder charges that become head tackles, which are then glorified time and time again on highlight shows.
  • Continued talk of an 18-game season.

And keep in mind this would be the second attempt to alter kickoffs, as first the league moved kickoffs up to the 35, reduced the "charge" and eliminated the wedge. It almost borders on obsession at this point.

I'll at least give them that in 2009, Goodell and the NFL realized that brain injuries are in fact a serious thing when they closed down something called the "Committee on Mild Traumatic Brain Injury" and renamed it the "Head, Neck and Spine Medical Committee."

Goodell, though he is the figure in charge of the NFL, isn't the lone person in charge of altering the game though, and he's certainly not in favor of making the sport flag football. The Time article cites John Madden, one of Goodell's most trusted people in the realm of player safety, is in support of a proposal by concussion expert Robert Cantu (in his book, Concussions and Our Kids) to ban tackle football before the age of 14 - a plan which Goodell isn't in favor of. That puts safety in the hands of the youth coaches to teach the proper tackling fundamentals, as our own resident youth coach Lester A. Wiltfong Jr. has said all along.

The truth is, Goodell can't eliminate the concussion problem himself. Any rule changes that Goodell has enacted or can enact serve only to eliminate a symptom, not the actual problem. Adding games only increases the likelihood of injuries, including brain injuries, through repetition. Players are injured on games after bye weeks as well as games on the four-day turnaround. Just this past week, Earl Bennett got a concussion, and it wasn't on a kickoff - eliminating kickoffs doesn't mean eliminating concussions. Sometimes concussions even happen when a player's just trying to make a spectacular play.

There's only so much the league can really do to protect players. At some point the players have to protect themselves.

But proposals like this one to eliminate kickoffs aren't the way to ensure player safety. Maybe it's time for Goodell to look at the big picture of football instead of microfocusing on kickoffs, fines and suspensions.

Do you approve of Roger Goodell's handling of player safety? How much more can the NFL still do to make the game safer without "making the game into flag football"?